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'Inventing Marcel Duchamp' at the National Portrait Gallery

Marcel Duchamp with two faces in a self-portrait double-exposed photograph by Victor Obsatz in 1953.
Marcel Duchamp with two faces in a self-portrait double-exposed photograph by Victor Obsatz in 1953. (By Victor Obsatz -- Philadelphia Museum Of Art Archives)
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And two years later still, for the last page of a special Duchamp issue of a magazine called View, the artist for once supplied a real photo of himself -- but one titled "Marcel Duchamp at the Age of Eighty-Five," inscribed with the future date of 1972 and shot to make the 58-year-old look ancient.

Many of these pictures, though they seem clearly about self-portrayal, aren't by Duchamp himself, at least in any standard sense of "by." In fact, one of their main points is to question authorship -- one of the most crucial "identities" attached to any work of art.

In those first Sélavy photos, is their true author the artist who dressed himself in women's clothes, or that other artist -- Duchamp's close friend Man Ray -- who snapped the shutter? And who's the real artist behind that artist-portrait for View -- Shahn, who meant the photo only to depict a migrant woman, or Duchamp, who chose it to stand in for himself? The picture counts as one of Duchamp's trademark "readymades," and as with all such works, you want to ask -- you are supposed to ask -- if the credit belongs to Duchamp, or to the person who first made the object he's turned into art.

In fact, Duchamp's most famous readymade, the urinal he titled "Fountain" and had rejected from a show in 1917, also counts as the first time he concealed himself behind an alternate identity.

First, Duchamp tried on a female role: He started out by claiming that the piece was in fact by a certain "female friend," and we've no way of knowing if that claim, never repeated, is literally true, or if his friend was just another avatar of Rrose. (Some now say the landmark work is really "by" the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, dada's wildest practitioner. A photo of her so-called "Portrait of Marcel Duchamp" -- a lost sculpture that was the first-ever work of assemblage, and which portrayed its subject as a champagne glass filled with sparkly scraps -- is this show's best image of Duchamp that isn't by the man himself.)

Then Duchamp scrawled the imaginary artist's signature "R. Mutt" onto the urinal, shifting authorship, and his own identity, once again. And all along he broadcast that the urinal itself came from the New York firm of J.L. Mott.

"Fountain" isn't in this show, despite its shape-shifting signature. That's a shame, because it would have meant more than several relatively recent portraits of Duchamp. They're by conceptual artists who try to do homage to the founder of their discipline, but mostly seem derivative of him.

"Fountain" would also have outshone a number of traditional portraits by Duchamp's contemporaries that are simply dull and worshipful, and that completely miss the points Duchamp had scored about identity and portraiture.

One exception is a seemingly straightforward etching that Man Ray did of his trickster friend, with the letters "C-e-l-a" and "v-i-t" inscribed to either side of a tiny rose scratched into its bottom corner. That's usually taken as yet as another play on "Rose Sélavy," this time meaning "cela vit" ("it lives").

But the letters also sit precisely where you'd expect to see the standard inscription "sculpsit" (Latin for "he engraved it") or "delineavit" ("he drew it") under the signature on an Old Master print. This time, however, I believe we're meant to read a Latin word that declares what is almost always true about the sitter in this image: "celavit" -- "he concealed it."

Inventing Marcel Duchamp: The Dynamics of Portraiture runs through Aug. 2 at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, at Eighth and G streets NW. Call 202-633-8300 or visit http://www.npg.si.edu.


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